Leaving a job in an academic research institute, I know how bad most efforts to have a wider impact can be. For my new business, I wanted to help fellow ‘geek’ researchers and technical types improve their approach to communication.
As part of my market testing, I looked at how people reviewed 11 popular books on technical and scientific writing for papers, grant applications, professional emails and presentations. Some books are very specific and others are very general.
I had two questions in mind for this review.
- What are the trends in terms of people’s expectations?
- Do researchers actually want to improve how they communicate?
This is a long post, and the individual analysis of the books isn’t for most people. Here are the key points I’ve learned from the review. They’re mostly common sense, but a lot of people still fail to apply them.
1. Understanding your audience is critical
Focus on what readers would want to do with the information you’re giving them. Know who you’re aiming to engage. What’s common-sense to someone from a certain background may be completely new to others. If you’re not sure what people’s expectations are, ask them!
2. Case studies give practical examples of theory
Use case studies to introduce new concepts to people by showing them in a real-life context. They also provide an element of storytelling that can keep people interested and make your information more memorable.
3. Don’t take scientific objectivity too far
You can be scientific and an entertaining read. Show passion and personality to bring your writing to life. But be aware that sections of your audience may not value or approve of too much personality!
4. Be concise
Research and technical writing need clarity most of all. Even academics appreciate simple language when they’re reading research. It’s a good idea to structure your text so people can skim for specific content to make your work more accessible and useful.
Why is explaining things so hard?
These guidelines seem obvious, but a lot of people fail to follow them. Why? My feeling is that following through with them involves hard work.
If you’re an expert in something and you have to explain what you do, it is hard. It’s hard to simplify things without dumbing them down. It’s even harder to persuade people to actually act on your ideas.
Hardest of all? Changing your mindset. A lot of us pick up habits and ways of writing from our teachers, peers and the things we read without giving it a lot of thought. Jargon becomes normal, words change their meaning and sentence structure collapses into porridge or is tortured into weird contortions to look more intellectual.
This is something I’ve had to deal with as a user experience designer, presenting data on flaws in a product only to get blank looks in return. It’s also something I’ve seen many of my friends and colleagues in academic research or technical jobs struggle with.
So I believe there is a market here for helping technical experts overcome these issues and present their ideas so they can get more impact. It’s a very satisfying field to work in, although it can be frustrating if people are looking for quick ‘bandaid’ fixes rather than changing their approach.
Understanding the market for technical communication
This report is part of my own research process for understanding my potential customers. These are people who have to communicate technical or academic information, want to improve the impact of their ideas, and are willing to pay for help and advice.
I’m looking at my own consultancy offering to find things that people feel is missing from these books.
Finally, it gives me direct quotes from people in my market so I can understand how they talk about things. This helps with showing clients you understand the stuff they struggle with and can actually give them a solution.
My Amazon review system research method
I’m using a highly ‘scientific’ method here to identify the things people are struggling with. It’s looking at Amazon books, finding the most relevant ones, and then looking at the reviews. I learned this from Ramit Sethi, my business mentor and it’s a great way to understand your audience.
I’m only looking for books with a decent amount of reviews so I can avoid 5-star reviews. These tend to be fans who either say very little or things like ‘an unparalleled work of staggering genius that changed my life’. I want some more balanced insight into the problems people had with the content, which you get from the 3- to 4-star reviews.
Table of contents
Here’s the complete list of all the books I’ve covered. I’ve excluded many books for not having enough reviews. I also decided not to cover any books that fell more into being style manuals.
- Technical Communication
- Technical Communication: A Reader-Centred Approach
- The Craft of Scientific Writing
- Writing Science: How to Write Papers that get Cited and Proposals that get Funded
- They Say/I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing
- The Craft of Scientific Presentation
- On Writing Well
- The Winning Brief
- Writing that Works!
- HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations
- HBR Guide to Better Business Writing
First up, ‘Technical Communication’ by Mark Markle (Seventh Edition). This has 90 reviews, which is great – there are a few nice in-depth reviews in an around the 3-4 star range.
From the reviews, it’s pretty clear most of the people buying it are undergraduate students who need it for coursework. That’s actually good because they have a utilitarian approach to the book and expect it to give them value more or less right away.
A few positive reviews single out the fact that it covers a wide range of writing – not instructions for widgets or trade publication reviews, which is more or less what I think of when I think of technical writing! CVs, business proposals, and presentations are also dealt with. In fact, it seems to be far more of a general ‘business writing’ book than in-depth technical writing textbook.
Positive reviews generally praised its focus on improving your professional image and the fact that it’s split up into sections that give you a single point of reference for a specific type of project. This also causes frustrations for people who expect to read it in a linear fashion, who criticise the amount of repetition.
Probably the best insight into what this book provides are the reviews that talk about focusing on the end user (or reader).
“I found this to be most helpful in determining ways to effectively communicate with end users and provide instructions for them”.
Another positive review comment that I’ve seen many times before is:
“A lot of visuals and examples helped me a lot with the technical writing course.”
Case studies are another big positive. People love them, especially when you have an audience that may not be that comfortable with a particular activity.
I think case studies are a great way to get people to engage with data-rich subjects by making them a lot less abstract and more relatable.
Technical Communication: A Reader-Centred Approach
We touched on the importance of thinking about the reader in the reviews of the last book, but the next one is all about that topic. ‘Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach’ by Paul V. Anderson (Seventh Edition).
This also has 90 reviews, with an average of 4 stars, but it turns out this is due to a database error on Amazon’s side mixing up the reviews of the previous book. Embarrassing.
Fortunately, this one comes with editorial reviews. What do the experts think?
Well, the most interesting review highlights Anderson’s focus on ethics in technical writing. That’s pretty cool. The editorial reviews also call out the examples as being a highlight, and state that the book is suitable for business communication for anyone from a non-liberal arts background.
On ethics, Anderson focuses on the misrepresentation of facts, which are not in the interest of the reader, as well as plagiarism and general intellectual property issues. He also covers ways in which employees can take action against unethical practices in their workplace, which may exist under the radar or with the explicit consent of senior managers.
It sounds like a good counter to stereotypical sales/marketing advice. These often focus on maximising revenue and lose sight of the needs of the customer.
The Craft of Scientific Writing
Looking for something less focussed on general business writing, I crossed over into ‘The Craft of Scientific Writing’ by Michael Alley. This has only 27 reviews, so I’m not too optimistic about getting anything valuable out of them.
Since there are so few reviews, I look at the editorial review first.
“A refreshing addition to a genre dominated by English teacher-style textbooks. Instead of listing rules that constrain writers, the book uses examples to lay out the path to successful communication … Especially helpful (and entertaining) is the chapter on the writing process. Anyone who has spent more time avoiding a writing task than actually doing it will appreciate Alley’s tips.”
–Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations, Johnson Space Center
Yes, number nerds hate abstract literary theory AND arbitrary grammar rules.
What do the reader reviews have to say? Since the sample is so small, I’m going to include everyone from 1 to 5 stars in my sample.
Well, someone credits it with helping them become a professor by improving their writing. They praise the book for being concise and to the point, which is good because it’s one of the main recommendations!
“Keep sentences concise so that the complexity of the science can be better appreciated.”
Good advice. I know I struggle with this myself.
The academic audience appreciates simple language. I especially like the review that “too many people in science write unintelligible gibberish”. It also provides examples of common mistakes and gives tips on how to avoid them, including making scientific writing more lively and fluid.
There’s not too much to criticise – someone thinks the layout is poor. This is nice for me as a designer since it shows presentation does impact on how easy it is understand something!
There’s the usual complaint of it being all ‘common sense’. I don’t pay much attention to these comments unless there’s a lot of them, to be honest.
Someone will always say “Everyone knows that, how dare you charge money for it.” Not only are these people self-absorbed, but they often fail to apply the common-sense principles they consider so obvious.
Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded
Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded by Joshua Schimel (First Edition). 92 reviews, with an average of 4.8 stars.
Now, this is a promise! From the book’s description: “As a scientist, you are a professional writer: your career is built on successful proposals and papers. Success isn’t defined by getting papers into print, but by getting them into the reader’s consciousness.”
One of the first things I see from a lot of reviews is that people are (allegedly) much more established in their careers. A sample quote:
“I have 70 published papers in international, peer-reviewed journals; and I want to go back to each and every one of them and rewrite them with the messages from this book clear in my head and clear to the reader.”
Great stuff. In fact, the only 3 star reviews are (a) a technical issue with the Kindle edition and (b1, b2) less useful for graduate students than it is post-doctorate or professor rank academics.
So what are the key positive points that make people love this book so much?
First, Schimel focuses on using storytelling in a scientific context, with concrete examples and exercises, and by eating his own dogfood and applying his own techniques in the text. Many reviewers praise it as an entertaining read.
There is resistance to this idea by some reviewers, who stick to an orthodox view that all that matters are the results of science.
The vast majority of readers do react positively to Schimel’s view of scientists as people who make data meaningful, not people who plug numbers into models. It helps that he focuses on two big concerns for any academic – getting citations and getting funding.
Readers also praise the amount of practical examples, with concrete examples of how to organise writing from the level of the whole paper down to individual sentences.
It’s not a style manual, so it doesn’t focus on the nitty-gritty of grammar, but it’s not full of vague, general advice either. Even non-native speakers praise it for helping them understand how to write about science in English and enjoy the process.
“…buy this book for excellent guidance and examples on how to write science in an engaging and effective manner that has impact on a broad audience rather than just narrow cliques.”
“They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing
“They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff is a book aimed at students getting used to academic writing, so it’s less advanced and specific than the last one.
It’s focussed on helping students master academic rhetoric. I had a few doubts about including it, but with 1,184 reviews and an average of 4.4 stars, there should be some decent insight in there!
Let’s look at the broad positives first. One thing people praise is that it’s very simple and accessible, using only plain language and lots of examples. The book provides many templates, which readers found a bit more controversial but generally found useful.
A big emphasis on the book is actually tackling how to deal with debate on controversial topics, with a lot of examples. Readers praise its emphasis on understanding the viewpoint of the people you’re debating or trying to convince.
On negatives, the main issues are that people felt it was too basic for college or graduate student classes. I think there’s a lack of empathy here on the part of reviewers for less advantaged students, but it’s understandable if they were forced to buy something that they already knew.
The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid
Since I’m not interested in the technicalities of writing, I wanted to look at books with more of a focus on presenting ideas so that they have more impact. The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley has 40 reviews with an average of 4.3.
If you’ve been paying attention, this is the second Michael Alley book in the collection. It deals with the history of scientists who have made excellent presentations and looks at why people responded so well to these presentations.
There’s a small sample of reviews again, so this is going to be brief.
Readers liked the emphasis on examples and counterexamples that he used to explain and make people interested in scientific ideas. Alley suggests different methods for different audiences, such as fellow researchers, policymakers, or the general public.
Again, there’s a strong emphasis on telling a story that keeps people interested while explaining a finding in clear language.
One of the most pertinent criticisms of the book is that its central premise is how to present clearly defined results. It lacks instruction on how to deal with more speculative or ambiguous results.
It is also ultimately a book about using tools such as PowerPoint better, and does not tackle the thornier issue of when to use PowerPoint!
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Nonfiction
Our next contender is On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Nonfiction by William Zinsser. A journalist, Zinsser’s book is much less focussed than the others since it covers everything from travel writing to technical instructions. On the plus side, this means we’re working with far more reviews, 717 when I was going through it, with an average of 4.7 stars.
So with a lot of positive reviews, what are the main strengths of Zinsser’s book?
Since I’m most interested in technical and scientific writing, this positive review stood out the most.
“Writing research papers is just another form of non-fiction writing, after all, but it might be the form that needs clarity the most.”
This is one book that some people found hard to read as a reference work. My impression is it tried too hard to be all things to all people, or the author targeted at professional journalists who cover a huge range of assignments.
Its organisation is considered poor by multiple reviewers. Some useful details are lost in specific chapters, requiring rereads, while other people feel that later chapters have too much fluff and repetition. Even positive reviews highlight this. “I have so many sticky flags in this book” does not sound like great structure.
Other readers praise specific advice on the importance of finding your central idea and turning the reader into an ally, not a passive observer. Zinsser writes in an informal, entertaining way and makes a strong case that more non-fiction should be like this.
There is a dark side to having such a personality-driven tone – other reviewers found him arrogant and self-absorbed.
The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts
The Winning Brief by Bryan A. Gardner is super-specific. It’s a how-to-manual for junior lawyers who need to get a grip on writing briefs for practice and get out of certain bad habits they may have picked up in law school.
It’s always interesting to look at something so specific to look for stuff that’s more transferable. It’s also useful to look at the law because the standards for defining the meaning of words and being precise in language are so high. Done badly, you end up with stale, impenetrable word salad of legalese.
“This book deprograms you of legalese.”
Sounds great! This is a ‘100 Tips’ style book, with the tips summarised inside the front and back cover for quick reference. (A great idea). Each tip has examples, dos and don’ts, and quotes from lawyers and judges which do a great job of keeping things interesting. Some of the examples are very long and tedious case notes, but it is practical law, so that’s to be expected.
Generally what people like most about the book is how it’s organised as a reference work, with the quick tips on the inside covers, and then easy access to specific issues. Since it’s main emphasis is on making legal writing as clear as possible, it’s good to see this in action.
There aren’t any relative negative comments – most 3 star reviews are to do with the Kindle edition.
Writing that Works
Writing that Works by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson is another business writing book. It has 110 reviews with a rating of 4.3, and a focus on communication that leads to results.
‘I am wordy, because I think it makes me sound smarter. This book tells me to get to the point and stop wasting the reader’s time.’
The writers score points for following their own advice – their advice is praised for being concise, down to earth and well organised. The chapters are organised around specific task like writing an email, preparing a presentation, etc. which helps with quick access to relevant sections. Chapters themselves are well organised to allow users to scan to relevant sections.
Specific comments from technical and academic writers praise it for explaining what they might be doing wrong in practical terms that suit an engineer, for example, with examples on how to write for a specific audience.
The book is dated, but no one considers this to be a serious flaw, although it lacks examples for social media. One reviewer points out that email and social media can actually degrade people’s communication skills and this book can help refresh key principles.
A warning for anyone like myself who’s hoping to help improve academic and technical communication:
“As somebody in the sciences, I can personally attest that there are LOTS of people who don’t know how to write. Not only are they bad at it, they don’t ever take the time to learn – mainly because they don’t think it’s important.”
Well, you can’t sell to people who aren’t salable. Going through this process has shown me two things.
There are enough people in science, academia or technical professions who want to improve their communication skills.
People who invest in their communication skills do see benefits, including more chances of getting funded, being cited or getting a more senior job.
HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations
Almost there! For the final two pieces, I’m looking at reviews of two Harvard Business Review Guides. The first is the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations by Nancy Duarte. It has 4.5 stars from 98 reviews.
When I transcribed the title, I wrote it out wrong, putting the nonsense word ‘effective’ in there. I was very relieved to discover that it was, in fact, persuasive presentations!
Nancy Duarte is something of a presentation guru if you haven’t heard of her. This HBR Guide acts as a summary of the key points of some of her previous two best-selling books, Resonate and slide:ology for a busier executive audience.
Its condensed nature called about by many reviews as a positive, dispensing with fluff or repetition. It has less value to people who’ve already bought her other books. It’s not just for Silicon Valley executives or Powerpoint fiends though – the principles can be applied to anyone who has to speak in front of an audience and wants a practical reference work to help them improve.
Key things covered in this book are delivering good webinars or teleseminars and using social media to build relationships and get feedback after a presentation. These are key points for anyone who wants to deliver better online training or get the most out of going to conferences.
Nancy does not lie to anyone: you have to work hard to make good presentation; really hard in fact. But the promise of the reward behind all the hard work makes the effort worthwhile.
It’s also relevant to anyone who has to present to busy, powerful people, from business to policy-makers, who don’t appreciate time wasting.
Generally, the readers consider it a home-run, packed with useful information, well organised and delivered with passion.
HBR Guide to Better Business Writing
Our last review is another Harvard Business Review Guide, the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing (HBR Guide Series) by Brian A. Garner. This has 4.6 stars from 73 reviews.
This Guide promises to help you save time, money and influence by winning people over with your writing. It emphasises that good writing is not a luxury for important documents.
Since this is a Harvard Business Review Guide, there are plenty of case studies, which they praise repeatedly. There are before and after examples, relevant real world examples, and in-depth appendices for detailed rules.
Readers also praise it for making the case for being concise and helping people break out of the habit of trying to hit an arbitrary word or page limit.
Garner emphasises the importance of understanding your readers, whether that’s one specific person or a more general audience. You can actually see this in the design of the guide. It’s a small book, which helps many readers keep it as a handy reference book on their desk for active use.
Whew. This was a monster to write up, but I learned a lot of specific details about what my audience wants and needs. Summarizing the reviews and looking for common themes really helped.
What do you think about these results? What’s your biggest concern for improving your technical communication skills?